Ethereum scaling roadmap casper, plasma, sharding

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While the Ethereum roadmap isn’t definitively laid out, there are many important updates planned to take place in 2019. We can also expect to see more of the research that has taken place over the past two to three years begin to enter preliminary testing phases and eventual implementation on mainnet. Without further ado, here’s what you should know about Ethereum’s development efforts in 2019 and beyond.

How Will Ethereum Scale?

Ethereum has already accomplished a lot as a blockchain protocol since its initial project development began in 2014. With thousands of decentralized applications (dApps) built on top of Ethereum, it’s the clear leader of ecosystem creation amongst blockchain projects. However, a number of newer blockchain projects are beginning to challenge this. EOS, POA, and Steem are all excellent examples of blockchains that also have a number of native applications.

In early 2019, there are a number of challenges that remain unresolved for Ethereum. The primary focal point of Ethereum in the immediate future is clearly on improving Ethereum’s scalability. 

Ethereum transactions scaling
When Ethereum transactions increase, the network slows down and fees increase. A scaling solution is needed.

Making an exact timeline for when we should expect to see these solutions implemented can be difficult. Nonetheless, it’s good to use estimated time frames based on various sources to show how close (or distant) Ethereum’s upgrades are.

The Ethereum Roadmap at a Glance

UpgradeDateDetails
Raiden Red EyesDecember 2018Off-chain solution for faster and cheaper transactions.
Constantinople hard forkJanuary 16th, 2019Lays the technical groundwork for significant scaling projects in the future.
PlasmaTBDThe introduction of “child” chains off the main Ethereum blockchain for faster and cheaper transactions. Similar to how the Lightning Network works on Bitcoin.
Caspermid-2019Ethereum’s main scaling goal. Casper is the shift from Proof-of-Work to the more efficient Proof-of-Stake.
Sharding2020-2021Partition the existing blockchain into smaller pieces known as shards.
Serenity (aka Ethereum 2.0)2019-2021The culmination of Casper and Sharding will create “Ethereum 2.0.”
Ethereum 3.02022-2025Implementation of a ‘super quadratic sharding’ solution which could facilitate one billion transactions per day.

Before we look at the roadmap in more detail, let’s also give some context to where the project is today.

Ethereum 1.0 (July 30, 2015 to Present)

Classifying the various Ethereum versions can be tricky. This is because the project isn’t the same as it was during its mainnet launch in July 2015. Plus, there are two commonly-accepted classifications. 

First, you’ll find that the Ethereum blockchain in early 2019 is still referred to as ‘Ethereum 1.0’. Ethereum 2.0 is referred to as Serenity. The official Ethereum Wiki page shows that Serenity is technically classified as Ethereum v4, and its release date is to be determined. 

Some major development milestones of Ethereum 1.0 include:

Olympic (v0, released in May 2015)

Frontier (v1, released in July 2015)

Homestead (v2, released in March 2016)

Metropolis (v3 aka vByzantium released in October 2017). 

Metropolis (v3.5 aka vConstantinople) will be released in January 2019. 

Raiden’s Red Eyes Launched on Ethereum Mainnet (December 21, 2018)

Although this technically happened in 2018, it’s still an important and recent achievement on the roadmap to reaching greater scalability for Ethereum. In sum, the Red Eyes protocol allows for quicker transaction completion times through payment channel technology, which takes place off-chain. 

Some innovative features of Red Eyes include single and multi-hop transfers, REST API with endpoints for all functionalities, rewritten and more gas-efficient smart contracts (e.g. only one contract per token network), recoverability in case of an irregular shutdown of the Raiden node, and the integration of the Matrix transport protocol for messaging. 

raiden network
The Raiden network

Still, the current version of Red Eyes has a few known issues to be aware of. For example, third parties are currently unable to monitor channels on behalf of nodes or to pathfinding services. It also isn’t possible to do atomic swaps or upgrade smart contracts with Red Eyes. 

The only way to upgrade the network is to close all channels and redeploy a new smart contract and reopen the channels. Additionally, Raiden’s blog post mentions numerous security notes. Some known issues include a compromised user system, a full disk, blockchain congestion, and chain reorganizations. 

Once fully deployed, Raiden is designed to enable the Ethereum blockchain to process one million transactions per second and make transactions significantly cheaper to complete than before. 

Three 1,000 ETH Grants (December 2018)

In December 2018, Vitalik Buterin sent 1,000 ETH grants to three different blockchain companies: Prysmatic Labs, Sigma Prime, and ChainSafe Systems. Even though this was positive news, it actually led to mixed reactions from members of the blockchain community. 

For example, one VC investor stated that Ethereum is “missing ship dates [and] are lacking basic operational leadership.” A CEO of a crypto project said, “Ethereum has taken its lead for granted for too long (2 years). Needs increased focus and urgency on scalability to reclaim its narrative. Move fast or die slow.”

Whether or not you agree with these criticisms, it’s safe to say that most of Ethereum’s innovations are still listed on the future roadmap, and a lot of work is needed to sustain its position as a leader in blockchain and crypto. With that being said, here are some future events to look forward to.

Metropolis, vConstantinople (January 16, 2019)

Constantinople is the first major Ethereum update of 2019 and quite possibly the most important since the October 2017 update. Constantinople marks a hard fork of the Ethereum blockchain. After this update is released, members of the community will have to decide whether to run the old network or switch to the new one. 

Lane Rettig, an independent developer, has called Constantinople a “maintenance and optimization upgrade.” While these changes aren’t all that big from an end user’s perspective, they do present new opportunities as well as challenges overall in several key areas. For example, upgrades implemented with Constantinople should make it easier for the Ethereum team and projects building on top of Ethereum to continue on tackling scalability issues in the future.

Constantinople will include the following five EIPs (Ethereum improvement proposals): 

EIP 145 introduces a more efficient method of information processing known as Bitwise shifting. According to the EIP145 proposal notes, it costs around 35 gas to do a shift using arithmetic. However, this solution introduces an Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM) native operation that only costs 3 gas. This results in a 91.4% savings in gas costs. 

EIP 1052 provides a solution for optimizing large-scale code execution on Ethereum. More specifically, this functionality returns the keccak256 hash of a contract’s bytecode. It improves upon the design of the EXTCODECOPY opcode. As a result, large contracts that only require the hash will be cheaper to process.

EIP 1283 is based on EIP 1087. This proposal aims to help smart contract developers by reducing gas costs related to changes made to data storage.

EIP 1014 is utilized in state-channel use cases that involve counterfactual interactions with contracts. It allows interactions to (actually or counterfactually in channels) be made with addresses that do not exist yet on-chain.

EIP 1234 is the somewhat controversial proposal that reduces the block mining reward issuance from 3 ETH down to 2 ETH. This will change Ethereum’s underlying economic policy.  It also delays the introduction of the “difficulty bomb” for 12 additional months. The difficulty bomb is a piece of code which will eventually increase the difficulty level of puzzles in the mining algorithm used to reward miners with ETH.

Plasma and Plasma Cash (TBD)

Even though it’s up for debate, most consider Plasma to be an on-chain scaling solution. This is due to the fact that Plasma relies upon the inherent security of the Ethereum blockchain. 

Plasma chains have the ability to be better than ordinary sidechains due to increased security and easier accessibility. For example, if a Plasma sidechain breaks, funds are still secure thanks to the main chain. Meanwhile, users can also withdraw funds from a Plasma sidechain to the main chain at any time with balances from the last valid block. 

Ethereum plasma diagram

Back in September 2018, OmiseGo Director of Engineering Kasima Tharnpipitchai outlined updates about providing a Plasma solution for Ethereum at a meetup event in Warsaw. On October 8, 2018, the OmiseGo team released the fifth Plasma update. Although Plasma hasn’t been added on top of the Ethereum mainnet, there has been a lot of progress towards this goal. For example, the Plasma team arrived at Devcon4 with an internal testnet, a Plasma MVP, and the first dapp built on OmiseGO. 

Plasma Cash is another solution that’s supposed to be even more efficient than Plasma. However, this is still in the research phase as of the beginning of 2019. The OMG team has been working with other researchers to simplify an atomic swap protocol which utilizes Vitalik Buterin’s atomic swaps and defragmentation work. 

Loom Network is another blockchain project that has been working on developing similar Plasma solutions to improve the scalability of the Ethereum blockchain.

Casper (mid-2019)

Casper is Ethereum’s pure Proof of Stake consensus algorithm. Why the change to Casper? Simply put, Proof of Stake blockchains are typically more scalable than Proof of Work blockchains. Additionally, there are growing concerns over the environmental impact of cryptocurrency mining operations. 

As of the beginning of 2019, transactions on the Ethereum blockchain are still reliant upon Proof of Work. This means that cryptocurrency miners play a big role in verifying the accuracy of transactions. When Ethereum switches to Casper, transactions will be validated with staking. 

Originally, the core development team decided to come up with two phases of Casper (FFG and CBC). FFG was supposed to be a hybrid PoW/PoS solution. Meanwhile, Casper CBC was designed to be a pure PoS. In 2018, however, the Ethereum team scrapped this two-phase Casper approach and decided to focus solely on Casper CBC. Here is an excellent article (with diagrams) that demonstrates how Casper CBC should work.

proof of stake vs proof of work
Source: Block Geeks

Sharding Updates (2020 and 2021)

In basic terms, sharding aims to securely partition the existing blockchain into smaller pieces known as shards. This solution, like most others on this list, is something that many non-Ethereum blockchain developers and researchers are also working on. 

When it comes to implementing sharding on a mainnet, Ethereum won’t be the first. This title will likely go to Zilliqa upon the release of its mainnet on January 31, 2019. However, Ethereum’s sharding implementation isn’t too far down the road. According to various estimations from developers, we should expect the Ethereum blockchain to implement phase one of sharding sometime in 2020 and phase two sometime in 2021. 

Serenity a.k.a. Ethereum 2.0 (2019/2020)

Earlier, we mentioned that Ethereum is still in version 1.0 as of the beginning of 2019. So when will Ethereum 2.0 be released? This is still difficult to say exactly. That’s because Ethereum 2.0 is generally considered to be a combination of Casper CBC (full PoS) and sharding. As stated above, Casper will likely be ready mid-2019. 

Meanwhile, sharding for Ethereum won’t be initially implemented until 2020. In that sense, it’s easier to think of the move to Ethereum 2.0 as the culmination of two separate upgrades and not something that will have a single release date.

Ethereum 3.0 (2022 to 2025)

While Serenity (Ethereum 2.0) is still on the horizon, the core Ethereum team is already working towards Ethereum 3.0. This mostly involves research, rather than implementation. As to be expected, objectives that are further along in the roadmap have broader time frame ranges. 

This is because delays or even circumstances that speed up the current projects or the future development of Ethereum 3.0 could take place.

Super quadratic sharding is a major part of Ethereum 3.0. As this site explains it, “So say, Ethereum currently has 16,000 nodes and all of them are currently processing the same transactions. You split that into 160 node groups of 1,000 nodes each. Ethereum’s current capacity is around one million transactions, so in this sharded chain its capacity would be one million x 160.”

Once everyone is confident in the capabilities of the sharded chain, it’s possible that, sometime between 2022 to 2025, Ethereum can split those 1,000 nodes each into 10 groups of 100 nodes each. This would make it possible to process one billion transactions per day with Ethereum. 

Conclusion

Ethereum continues to make progress on its roadmap goals for 2019 and beyond. Much like any project, there will likely be a few speed bumps along the way. However, a large group of core developers and an ecosystem of independent developers and projects building infrastructure for Ethereum is what continues to accelerate innovation.

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Ethereum developers have launched an alpha test network (testnet) for Casper, paving the way for the cryptocurrency to eventually transition to a proof-of-stake (PoS) consensus algorithm.

Like bitcoin, ethereum currently operates on a proof-of-work (PoW) consensus algorithm, meaning that the network is secured and new currency units are issued through “mining,” whereby participants solve cryptographic puzzles to validate transactions and create new blocks.

However, PoW has attracted criticism over the years, both for its tendency to centralize mining hardware into a few pools and for the amount of electricity it consumes.

Ethereum to implement Proof-of-Stake

Ethereum aims to address these problems by transitioning to Casper, a proof-of-stake (PoS) consensus algorithm. Under Casper, participants can become validators by locking up or “staking” ether. Validators will take turns proposing and voting on blocks, and both the weight of their votes and the size of their rewards will hinge on the size of their stakes.

According to developers, moving to Casper will greatly reduce the amount of electricity “wasted” through PoW mining. In addition to limiting its environmental impact, PoS will allow ethereum to dramatically reduce its rate of currency inflation since validators will have much lower overhead and will thus require smaller rewards to incentivize them to continue to serve as validators.

Moreover, PoS will also reduce the incentive that validators have to centralize their influence. With decreased centralization comes increased security and, importantly, resistance to dreaded 51 percent attacks.

Ethereum is not the first project to attempt to integrate a PoS consensus algorithm. However, most previous PoS implementations have been criticized because, in the event of a blockchain split, validators are incentivized to try to make blocks on top of every chain rather than resolving the consensus back to a single blockchain.

casper
Source: Ethereum/Github

Casper aims to solve this problem by imposing economic penalties on malicious validators that violate the network’s rules. This ensures that validators are properly incentivized to achieve consensus on a single blockchain in the event of a network split.

Following three years of development, Casper has officially entered alpha testing, and the first full-featured testnet has launched. The software must still traverse several release checkpoints before it is ready to launch on the main network, but this alpha release nevertheless marks an important step toward its eventual activation on the main ethereum network.

Casper
Source: Vitalik Buterin/Twitter

Users can join the testnet by following the instructions in this guide, and once online they can send transactions and become validators, just as they would on a normal network, although the network’s performance is not indicative of how production clients will operate once the project receives an official release.